The Crusader Newspaper Group

Obama Library stirs mixed emotions for South Side residents

By Duke Omara, Chicago Crusader

It has now been over a month since the Obama Foundation announced that Jackson Park would host the presidential library. The decision ended a year-long debate on whether to build the facility in Washington Park or in nearby Jackson Park. Some residents in the two impoverished communities that were in the running for the library, are beginning to wonder about the potential impact of the decision.

David Welch, head gardener at the RTW Veterans Center and a longtime South Side resident had been hoping all along the library would find a home in Washington Park, but “not on public land.”

“It’s a nice piece of land for recreation and it has a lot of old trees that predate the park. Many people use it on weekends for family gatherings and it is always good to look at green space. Washington Park needs an economic boost but the university has a lot of land that it can use without taking public space,” said Welch.

The recreational value of the land and the needs of the general public, Welch insisted, far outweighed the new proposed use.

After a local environmental group withdrew potential legal obstacles, the Obama Foundation will likely start building the library soon after the president leaves office, and for some South Siders, the work on the project can’t be completed fast enough.

Stephen Weaver, a local resident, sees the library as a natural addition to what he already considers one of the city’s cultural hubs.

“I love the idea of having the presidential library here. Not only will it change this neighborhood’s image, it will also help us technologically, and will give our music and art industry a boost,” said Weaver.

He said he saw nothing wrong with using public land for the project because for him, it was all about celebrating a local son who had roots in the neighborhood.

Other locals, like Edward Stafford, believe having the library on public land is all about easing access to someone they consider a towering role model.

“Obama is historic and this will give people the opportunity to learn about the man’s achievements, his campaigns, his time in the Senate and his presidency,” he said. “We don’t have much here and this is something we can value knowing that he started here.”

Having the presidential library inside the University of Chicago campus as had been previously proposed, Stafford believes, would have unnecessarily complicated and limited entry to the library grounds.

The value that residents like Stafford believe will come with the construction of the library is enormous, as a 2014 study by the Anderson Economic Group projects. The study, which was commissioned by the University of Chicago, said that it expected around 800,000 visitors to the library each year. The facility is expected to impact the city’s economy to the tune of $220 million annually. About $110 million of this is money that would not have been spent in the city otherwise.

In addition, the project would create 1,900 permanent jobs and over 3,200 jobs during the library’s construction period while increasing the city’s tax base by $5 million annually.

The study noted the likelihood “that other private development or infrastructure improvements that complement the Obama Presidential Library would result in an even greater and more localized economic impact.”

It is precisely this economic impact that many on the South Side are bracing for.

Groups like RTW Veteran Center, which was briefly in the midst of debate about the location of the library, believe their neighborhood is gentrifying. Many are afraid that they will be pushed out of the neighborhoods they have served for so long.

“Income levels will rise eventually and by default we will have to move,” Worthy the group’s CEO observed, “but the impact on the community as a whole will be positive. We understood that from the beginning.”

Neighborhoods change, Worthy added, and groups such as his will have to adapt and deal with the changing circumstances the Obama presidential library will bring to the South Side. His guiding philosophy however, he said, will remain the same.

“One community at a time. When this community does not need us, we will move to where we are needed.”

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